Wading through Modern Ennui

The Oxford Book of American Short Stories

The Oxford Book of American Short Stories

THE OXFORD BOOK OF AMERICAN SHORT STORIES, SECOND EDITION
JOYCE CAROL OATES, EDITOR
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2013
$21.95
808 PAGES

A review of a book of short stories should tell the reader some of the stories. Let’s start with Charles Chesnutt’s “The Sheriff’s Children,” which was originally published in 1889. In it, a biracial man, referred to in the story as “the mulatto,” is jailed for a crime he did not commit. The townspeople seek to take justice into their own hands, but the sheriff, in a risky show of courage, refuses to hand over the keys to the prison. Armed with two weapons, the sheriff threatens to use them. The crowd, temporarily cowed but in a sullen mood, disperses, vowing to take care of matters on another day. After the crowd scatters, the sheriff is momentarily careless with his weapons, and the prisoner, seizing the opportunity, grabs the sheriff’s pistol and holds the sheriff at bay. The sheriff, having just offered protection, pleads for mercy in return. The prisoner, in turn, reveals to the sheriff that he, the sheriff, is the prisoner’s father, a charge which the sheriff, though surprised, cannot deny. The prisoner pours out a litany of charges against the sheriff, informing him what a wretched father he had been, how he had doomed his son, a biracial man, to a meaningless existence and how his shameful negligence had given him no chance in life. A shot rings out from outside the building. The sheriff’s daughter, sensing her father’s danger, comes to his rescue. The bullet tears a gash in the arm of the prisoner. He drops the weapon he had seized earlier and finds himself helpless again. The story begs for reconciliation between the father and son. It is not to be. The sheriff applies a makeshift bandage, with a promise to send a doctor the next day. The prisoner dies during the night.

The squirrels are at it again. And a cat crashes through the tomato vines, holding in its mouth a pink slipper. End of story.

One story alone does not predict a pattern. But it is a start. Exhibit B comes in the form of an Annie Proulx story, “The Mud Below,” which was originally published in 1998.  In it we encounter a bull-riding cowboy, whose career is narrated for us in arresting, vivid, physical detail, in the vernacular of impoverished rural life. There are few winners here in a sport that, though a delight to the spectators, is hardly a picnic for participants. Busted spines, pulled groins and limp injured arms are endured as riders make their way from rodeo to rodeo. And for the losers, only a big hand. They are victims of exploitation. Except for the lively description of landscape and the late introduction of a paternity issue, the story has no ending that would derive from a clear movement of beginning, middle and end.

WORLD OFF-KILTER

A pattern begins to emerge. Exhibit C, John Cheever’s story “The Country Husband,” which was first published in 1954, is another tale of defeated expectations. Francis, who narrowly escapes his death in an airplane crash, is grateful to be alive. He anticipates a sympathetic reception from his family upon his arrival home. But his wife, Julia, is in a hurry getting ready for a party, and their children are “up to their own antagonisms.” Nothing Francis says will arouse the family to an awareness of how close his life had been to ending that day. We get a picture of a dysfunctional family. Dinner has been prepared, but the scene erupts in chaos. “Can’t the children eat earlier?” he pleads, which sends Julia into a rage, and she refuses to fix two dinners. Julia feels used. She devotes most of her life to contriving parties with the right people, and when Francis clumsily offends one of her crowd, she threatens divorce before changing her mind. For his part, Francis falls in love with Anne, their beautiful, young baby-sitter. The story concludes with a non sequitur – the neighbor pursuing his lifelong enemy. The squirrels are at it again. And a cat crashes through the tomato vines, holding in its mouth a pink slipper. End of story.

These writers show a world off kilter, at wrong angles. Brief summaries of a few of the 50 stories reveal similar themes. Eudora Welty’s “Where is the Voice Coming From?” published in 1963, narrates an episode in a small Mississippi town in which a white illiterate, feckless, impoverished shanty dweller seethes in indignation that his neighbor, a black man, owns a car. In Paul Bowles’s story, “A Distant Episode,” published in 1948, a linguist, determined to learn the language of a distant tribe located on the edge of a desert, falls into the hands of smugglers. They care nothing for his academic credentials or aims. Eventually, after brutal treatment, he escapes with his life. In Tobias Wolff’s 1981 story, “Hunters in the Snow,” several would-be hunters, boastful of past exploits, accidentally shoot one of their own. To make matters worse, they lose the map which would have directed them to the hospital. Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith,” published in 1959, gives us the twists and turns of new Jewish army recruits who manipulate their Jewishness for special favors – Shabbat, diets, festivals and such. Amy Hempel’s “Today  will be a Quiet Day,” originally published in 1985, tells of a father who wishes to spend a day with his teen-age children. A friend had committed suicide, and he mistakenly supposes that a day on the road with his children might prove a useful change.

With some stretch, certain groupings appear. No fewer than seven stories, for example, deal with racial relations in the “Christ-haunted South.” A number of them are minimalist stories – low-key series of episodes that say little – a conversation between two people waiting for the train is one of them. One is a story of two truck drivers who tell us how they pilfer from their customers and the cash register. Ralph Ellison describes the brutal and humiliating treatment which “good old Southern boys” inflict on some students as part of their evening entertainment. Several others belong in the realm of fantasy. They are a cop-out really, a sort of virtual reality, as if the authors thought they could get closer to life by using dreams, apocalyptic speculations, even the thoughts a man might experience while drowning (as occurs in Jeffrey Ford’s “The Drowned Life”). Regional ghost stories remind us that these might be American short stories but they also are from very distinct regions of the country. “Cannibalism in the Cars,” by none other than Samuel Clemens, is a gruesome tale of people whose train is snowbound. The passengers proceed to decide which one of them – eventually which ones – should serve as a diet for the rest. With all this carried on in the jargon of deliberative assemblies, one soon catches on that this is a satire targeting the inane protocols of elected leaders. As is true for other stories, audacity substitutes for creativity.

IMPRESSIONIST EVOCATIONS

Perhaps my purpose has become clear. The editors have shown us the “form and pressure” of our times. They have chosen stories that register the authors’ hostility to their world – especially the American way of life – by breaking with literary traditions that embody ontological references, parabolic wisdom and a stable, predictable universe. “Delightful teaching” was the formula Sir Philip Sidney used to describe the uses of literature. The new ones give us what someone calls “impressionist evocations.” Sartre gave us the phrase “the nausea of society.” Speaking in general terms (there are some exceptions, but that must be for another essay), the bulk of these stories are tales of disillusionment and hostility to the establishment, with minimal plots. There is hardly a story that can be said to take place in some semblance of a normal home. Even the one that comes closest is a narrative that has to do with the estrangement between different generations, involving immigration. In it, the now-American children change their names from those of their grandparents, to Americanized ones – an affront almost beyond endurance for the Chinese grandfather, who has sold his business and left all that he had to join his family in America.

The writers, and even the editor, give us some clues about the worldviews which lie behind their stories. T. C. Boyle describes a story as a work of the imagination, like game-playing or puzzle-solving. Then he adds, “Life is tragic and absurd and without any purpose whatsoever.”  The editor, Joyce Carol Oates, sees story-telling as “a casual exercise,” as if we were playing a piano without a pedal. She adds, “For how else can we speak of the unspeakable, except through the distancing prism of technique?” Two recent TV interviews demonstrate the contrasting approaches to writing stories. Literary elder statesman Irving Stone, reported that a true literary craftsman has the conclusion in his mind before he starts writing, stating, “What is last in execution needs to be first in the mind.” On the other hand, Adam Johnson, the recent winner of the National Book Award, never knows where his story will take him when he begins. He tries this, then that, and, finally, a shape emerges. “It’s like a jazz improvisation,” he said. The Roman writer Horace recommended a nine-month incubating period.

Marilynne Robinson, in her recently published book of essays, The Givenness of Things, contends that modern man has repudiated the metaphysical and ontological – truths that we must hold as self-evident. Thus, many of today’s writers cannot harvest the givens of creation: the status of humans as image-bearers of God, the beauty of the earth and the protocols about moral standards and rules of human behavior appropriate to his status. Having created their own universes of meaning, writers tend to write stories as a form of therapy – a search for meaning that will determine the shape of the story. This attitude no doubt accounts for the open-ended stories with ambiguous outcomes, non sequiturs and dubious cause-and-effect relationships. True, some authors provide social commentary and sometimes a “point of pressure” – some sort of epiphany that the reader is left to discern for himself or herself. Technique flourishes, to be sure. And one envies the facility with language, the wide-ranging variety of styles and the imaginative power.

Yet, there are writers who achieve a higher level, such as Marilynne Robinson or Flannery O’Connor. Or take the Russian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose writing helped bring down the Russian government (for which he spent 13 years in exile). Writers such as these, who with the wisdom dispensed from the role that transcendence plays in their thought and imagination, make newer ones appear quite mediocre. Life is so short, I say, that we need to become clever literary mice so as to spend wisely our dollars and our days.

Steven Van der Weele, now retired, taught English at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, for 34 years.